If you could ask your customers any question, what would you ask them?

What I learned from asking this question to small business owners


I have a problem with customer feedback surveys. Not only are they a pain to fill out, but I’ve always wondered how much value they actually add to a business.

Last summer, I spent a lot of time walking in and out of restaurants, cafes, and shops collecting feedback cards (this is especially popular in Hong Kong and Asia). You’d think that a Japanese restaurant would want to ask their customers different questions from that of a bookstore, but what surprised me was how generic each feedback survey was:

  • Quality? Check
  • Service? Check
  • How did you hear about us? Check
  • Would you recommend us to a friend? Check
Customer feedback cards from an Italian Restaurant in California, to a bookstore in Hong Kong, to a hotel in Madrid

It’s interesting how little customer feedback has evolved since the inception of comment cards in the 20th century.

When almost any task can now be done with a few taps on a smartphone, why are small businesses still relying on physical feedback cards that require extra effort on the user end?

Even businesses that have adopted more technological solutions still require their customers to either scan a QR code or enter an unnecessarily long survey code before they can begin completing another generic survey (I’m looking at you Peet’s Coffee and Jamba Juice).

Generic answers for generic questions

The problem is that even if a business manages to collect feedback, they’re not provided with enough customer insight to take action.

A 2014 study published in the Journal of Hospitality Marketing & Management obtained comment cards from 74 restaurants around the United States. They found that 78% of the comment cards contained closed ended questions, and 44.8% of the closed end questions were double-barreled questions (Bartkus, Mills, Olsen, 2014). Double-barreled questions occur when two questions are asked instead of one.

Different types of double-barreled questions in the feedback cards of 74 restaurants (Bartkus, Mills, Olsen, 2014)

So it’s important to hear from customers, but there’s a difference between proactive feedback and getting feedback for the sake of getting feedback.


What if instead of asking generic questions, businesses started asking their customers genuine questions that mattered to them.

Instead of a restaurant asking you about the quality of their food on a 1–5 scale, what if they asked you what your favorite menu item is and why you liked it.

Instead of a bookstore asking if you would recommend them to a friend, what if they asked if you were interested in joining a book club and to recommend your favorite genre.

Instead of a cafe asking if you were satisfied by their level of service, what if they asked you if there was anything they could have done to provide you with a better experience.

How can small businesses learn and grow by asking specific questions pertaining to their product or service?

These were some of the thoughts floating through my mind as I went door to door to restaurants and cafes around Baltimore. Since no business is the same, I wanted to dig deep into the mind of a small business owner and find out what kind of insights they wanted to find out about their customers.

For every restaurant or cafe that I visited, I asked them “If you could ask your customers any question, what would you ask them?”

The responses that I got were fascinating.

A local pizza joint had no way of quantifying which of their pizzas were most popular, since they were using an outdated point of sale (POS) system. So they were interested in finding out what types of pizza their customers liked the most, and what flavors their customers hadn’t tried yet.

A yogurt shop had over twenty different flavors of yogurt, but had always wondered whether the consistency of their yogurt varied on a day to day basis.

A restaurant was experimenting with new menu items, but wanted a way to figure out which new dishes their customers would like the best.

A wine and spirits store that prides themselves on providing exceptional customer experience wanted to find out if their level of hospitality exceeded their customer’s expectations and why.


Although these are just some of the insights that I collected, what was consistent with all of the responses was how personal they were to the particular business.

I was also putting these business owners on the spot. What could they have come up with if they had put more time and thought into coming up with a question?

My main point is that small business owners need to go beyond asking generic questions and really think about what it is that they want to find out about their customers.

The best businesses constantly strive to improve and it is only by asking tough questions that businesses can get the insight needed to make those improvements.

In a world where customers are constantly bombarded by advertisements, asking customers for genuine feedback in an authentic manner makes a business stand out. We love businesses that have an authentic voice, ones that aren’t afraid to let their personality show.

It shows that a business cares and values their customer’s opinion — they’re not collecting feedback for the sake of collecting feedback, they want constructive criticism so that they can take action.

As a customer, I’m also more inclined to give a business feedback if they took the time to think about what they wanted to ask me, as opposed to shoving some generic question in my face and providing me with a multiple choice response.

So if you’re a small business owner, if you could ask your customers any question, what would you ask them?


Works Cited

Bartkus, Kenneth R., Robert Mills, and David Olsen. “Clarifications on the Design of Customer Comment Cards: Question Type, Question Wording, and Writing Space.” Journal of Hospitality Marketing & Management (2014): 14121714280900


This is the first blog post for Wiya. Wiya is platform where customers can provide feedback, interact, and earn rewards at local businesses.

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